The Dialectic of Monstrosity

Against the Current, No. 162, January/February 2013

Jase Short

Monsters of the Market
Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism
by David McNally
Winner of the 2012 Deutscher Memorial Prize
Haymarket Books, 2012, $28.

FROM THE MEANINGS behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Karl Marx’s utilization of the grotesque as metaphor for market fetishism in Capital, and ending with a powerful reflection on African zombies in the age of globalization, David McNally skillfully traverses the landscape of fantastic horror, past and present.

Monsters of the Market constitutes the most ambitious analysis to date of this genre by a Marxist theorist.

Today’s media landscape is heavily populated with films, TV shows and books featuring zombies and vampires, from AMC’s incredibly popular TV series “The Walking Dead” to the Twilight novels. McNally attempts to account for the spread of these cultural tropes, charting their origins from folklore to mass consumption in order to understand why these fantastic creatures resonate with so many people.

Marxists have a long history of engaging with speculative fiction, but unfortunately the dominant trend has been to subordinate analysis to the paradigm of Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, which privileges science fiction while regarding fantasy (and subgenres of horror connected to it) as escapist, irrationalist, reactionary and even fascistic.

China Miéville and Andrew Milner, on the other hand, regard the Suvinian paradigm as mechanistic and harmful to proper Marxist analysis. They posit a contrary view that defends all forms of the fantastic, a “mode” they consider “particularly resonant with the forms of modernity.” McNally, though he does not explicitly intervene in these debates within this book, has elsewhere (primarily through a Historical Materialism essay) placed himself squarely in this camp.

McNally himself claims that “straightforward narrative strategies regularly fail to register the reality of the unseen forces of capital; they assume that what is invisible is necessarily ‘not there.’” Noting the ways in which “market-forces” are “fantastically real” rather than immediately perceptible by the senses, he asserts that “fantastic genres, be they literary or folkloric, can occasionally carry a disruptively critical charge, offering a kind of grotesque realism that ‘mimics the absurdity’ of capitalist modernity, the better to expose it.” Consequently, he claims that “critical theory…needs an alliance with the fantastic.”

To demonstrate the power of the fantastic as a mode of expression uniquely suited for the realities of global capital, McNally traces the formation of Mary Shelley’s infamous Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus to class struggle in early modern England. After detailing the process of the enclosure of the commons and the consolidation of political power by the English bourgeoisie, McNally turns his critical eye to the social ritual of public anatomy.

First practiced in the Netherlands, public anatomies (dissections) became a major ritual of power for the English bourgeoisie:

“Public anatomy was deliberately organised as dramatic performance and mounted in theatres in the round that simultaneously entertained, instructed, and warned — all the while reproducing forms of class-authority. And, as poverty grew with the rise of capitalism, so did the numbers associated with punitive dissection.” (51)

Pitched battles would often be fought between anatomists and the family and friends of recently executed commoners. McNally shows that the primary motivation for wresting these bodies from the hands of the anatomists — long dismissed as a phenomenon expressing a superstitious attachment to the bodies of the dead — concerned dignity rather than religiosity.

Essentially, for the bourgeois, performing an anatomy on the bodies of dead proletarians served as a final display of power; thus, for the working poor recovering the body of a fallen comrade marked a line in the sand within the class struggle which proclaimed that at least in death the bourgeois would not reign victorious.

An entire industry grew up around the buying and selling of body parts, leading to an epidemic of grave robbery that had a major impact on the consciousness of both the bourgeoisie and the newly-formed proletariat. For the capitalist class this meant more secure caskets; for working people it meant more vigilant defense of graveyards.

Monstrous Machinery of Accumulation

McNally then traces the origins of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to this popular anxiety over bodily mutilation. He makes a strong case for a reading of the text that takes into account the radical politics that motivated Shelley (she was one of the few who actually supported justice for Ireland and Irish migrant workers) and demonstrates the ways in which the novel expresses the dialectic of monstrosity that so dominated the rhetoric of class struggle in nineteenth century England.

For the ruling class, monstrosity was to be found in the “many headed” (or, worse, “headless”) mob, whereas for the oppressed monstrosity was to be found in the brutality of a ruling class which carved up proletarian bodies as well as the commons itself, dividing up the land and humanity into discrete parts for exploitation and domination.

McNally’s reading clashes with the dominant interpretations of the text:

“Contrary to conservative readings, it is atomism, not science and the pursuit of knowledge, which comprises the axis of danger in the novel. What the book criticises is not so much the pursuit of science as the dangers of intellectual, artistic and scientific production in a society fraught with possessive individualism. In such a social order, scientific investigation all too easily serves personal aggrandisement, not societal well-being. As the Creature remarks upon being first warmed then subsequently burnt by fire: ‘How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!’ It is this insight — the opposite effects to which human invention can give rise in different settings — that informs the text.” (91)

The work then turns to Marx’s analysis of the monstrous in the workings of capital. In Capital we read, “Perseus wore a magic cap so that the monsters he hunted down might not see him. We draw the magic cap down over our eyes and ears so as to deny that there are any monsters.”

According to McNally, for Marx “the essence of capitalist monstrosity is its transformation of human flesh and blood into raw materials for the manic machinery of accumulation,” and further, “rather than merely provocative metaphors…Marx’s monsters are signs of horror, markers of the real terrors of modern social life.” (115) Criticizing structuralist, postmodernist and vulgar Marxist readings of Capital which dismiss its ethnography of working-class life as superfluous to the analytic schema he develops for the analysis of commodities, McNally asserts:

“Far from textual adornment, Marx’s literary stylistics and empirical analyses — the very places where we most often encounter monsters — are integral elements of his conceptual schema. Rather than marks of inconsistency or superfluous ornaments, Marx’s persistent shift in register and idiom, from complex theoretical mappings of the commodity to metaphorically charged descriptions of the crippling effects of capitalist production on workers’ bodies, reflect deeply held views about his object of study, the capitalist mode of production, and about the adequate theoretical tools for tracking and demystifying it. Because capitalism constitutes an alienated, topsy-turvy world, one in which phenomena regularly appear upside-down, the theoretical discourse that maps it needs to mimic the wild movement of things so as to better expose it. This is especially important, given the way that capitalist inversions become normalised for everyday thought and action. As a result, like Brecht, Marx seeks to estrange us from the familiar so that we might actually see it for what it is. To this end, he requires a dialectical language of doublings and reversals.” (116)

McNally then goes on to show Capital as an example of “a Marxist Gothic” which “journey[s] through the night spaces of the capitalist underworld,” a philosophical approach that inverts Plato’s story of the cave in that its principal movement involves a descent into the darkness rather than an ascent into the light. What we get from this analysis is a picture of vampire capital and zombie labor, a portrayal of the monstrous face of capital, a vision that is obscured in our daily lives.

Postcolonial Voodoo Horror

The book draws to a dramatic close with an analysis of voodo-horror in contemporary Africa. Stories of human ATMs shooting cash out of their mouths, acquisitions of wealth via the ritualistic sacrifice of human bodies and more abound in “post-colonial” Africa today.

One of the most dramatic genres involves varieties of zombie labor, such as the west African stories of invisible plantations where sleep-walking, zombified laborers toil through the night, only to wake up without any memory of their midnight exploitation, exhausted and compelled to rise in order to labor during the day as well.

Here we learn that the roots of zombie lore lie in the folklore of the Third World rather than the movie screens of the West. The transformation of the zombie at the hands of Hollywood into “pale substitutes, faint and distorted after-images of the monsters we deny” is accomplished by “the ritual codes of a culture-industry.” (113)

The journey from Africa to the U.S. big screen involves a fundamental transformation of the zombie from a tale of the laborer to a tale of the consumer, culminating in George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” which portrays zombies as rapacious consumers of human flesh driven by faint memories of consumerist needs to storm shopping malls. Devoid of the critical charge of the African zombie, the domesticated zombie can safely break box office records without critically undermining capitalist society.

The book is eminently readable, informative and enjoyable even for the non-horror enthusiast. McNally has the unique ability to translate incredibly complex socio-political concepts into plain and direct language without jettisoning the substantive value of the concepts themselves.

Throughout the work we find a compelling vision of Marxist critical theory that avoids the pitfalls of most cultural theory dominant in academia today. What emerges is a dialectic of monstrosity, a doubling in which the two faces of the monstrous emerge from different sides of the class struggle.

The work analyses contemporary obsessions with bodily deformity without falling into a postmodern fetishism of bodies so common by the crude imitators of Foucault.

McNally lays out a compelling argument for understanding the root of anxieties over bodily integrity in modern society, tracing it to the effects of a capitalist market that dissects and anatomizes the whole of nature — including our very bodies — in order to put the living at the service of the dead (abstract labor — capital). This is a work that no good Marxist or horror junkie can afford to miss.

January/February 2013, ATC 162